A framed chalk board with the word HERBS written on it surround by herbs in potting plants

What Is The Difference Between Whole Herbs and Herbal Extracts?

Incorporating medicinal herbs into a wellness plan is becoming mainstream. People all over the world are realizing the health benefits available with herbs. With more popularity comes more options and confusion. So, how do we choose? Is it better to eat herbs as they grow or is there more to know? Whole herbs and herbal extracts each contain healing wisdom and a unique mix of medicinal properties. Herbs have a long history speaking to their general safety and effectiveness to support many aspects of our body’s functions. The best form for you depends on the goals you are seeking.

Mushrooms with herbs and spices

Whole herbs are what you picture growing in Mother Nature, the flowers, leaves, seeds, stems, bark and roots. Modern medicine originated with whole herbs for their innate ability to help the body and it’s systems with a complex blend of phytochemicals. The synergy of all the plant compounds supports the normal functions of the human body. Whole herbs can bring a bright or aromatic accent for culinary flavoring or garnishing, medicinal properties or spiritual uses.

Consuming the whole herb gives a full spectrum synergy that is not possible without the sum of its parts; think about the benefits of eating whole foods and you can begin to understand the benefit of eating whole herbs. Their nutritive components (vitamins, fiber, iron etc) and their phytochemicals (carotenoids, phytosterols, polyphenols) each carry their own set of health benefits. In addition, their active constituents will vary based on the age of the herb, growing conditions, soil and weather influences, time of harvest, and type of processing.

Ways to enjoy whole herbs:

  • Cooked or fresh to enhance culinary dishes or used as a beautiful garnish
  • Dried, cut and sifted for a delightful yet medicinal tea or bath soak
  • Powdered and encapsulated or sold loose to add to a smoothie or beverage
  • Spiritual rituals for blessings, cleansing, energizing, purifying and more

Whole herbs can provide many health benefits when eaten whole, cut or powdered. You get all nutritional components of the harvested herb. Nothing is extracted or concentrated, thus more can be consumed in a healthy diet. Whole herbs in capsules can dissolve in the stomach but will need a functioning digestive system to break it down from the plant fiber, and not all constituents will be absorbed. That is why they are a great starting point for those easing into herbal flavors and convenient for people on the go. Check out the great dried herb options Wise Woman Herbals has to share.

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Herbal extracts are herbs that have their bioavailable constituents suspended in a liquid solvent. They are the concentrated liquid version of herbal supplements. Soaking the solid matter, for weeks to months, in a solvent right for that herb draws out the strongest active plant materials and acts as a preservative. Common solvents include alcohol, glycerin, oils, water, or vinegar. Extracts are seen as one of the best medicinal options because they have a longer shelf life and the dosage can be easily monitored and adjusted.

Types of herbal extracts:

  • Water Extracts are made by either infusion, like making a cup of tea, or decoction, simmering like we make a good soup.
  • Tinctures (aka liquid extracts) are made by soaking herb(s) in alcohol or alcohol and water for full extraction of the desired plant compounds you intend to extract. The most common ratios are 1:4 for dried herbs (1 part herb to 4 parts liquid solvent) or 1:1 for fresh herbs (1 part herb to 1 part liquid). Liquid extracts are easily absorbed by the body even when highly concentrated. Anywhere from 15-60 drops is a typical suggested dose, depending on the herb.
  • Glycerites and Solid Herbal Extracts are alcohol-free extracts in a base of vegetable glycerin and sometimes honey. These are great options for those needing or wanting to avoid alcohol.
  • Dried powdered extracts are herbs soaked in solvent that evaporates. The concentrated phytochemical powder gets mixed with whole herb powder for capsules, tablets or loose powder form. These are the most potent preparations.
  • Essential oils are made by steam distillation of the herb(s), isolating the oil-based chemicals to a concentrated liquid often used for aromatherapy or topical applications. Essential oils are very potent. Just a few drops go a long way. Never ingest essential oils without the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Liquid herbal extracts best capture and preserve the active constituents, which are also immediately assimilated. Herbal extracts are easy on digestion, quickly drawn into the bloodstream, and have faster absorption than powdered capsules or tablets. Extracts for single herbs may also be blended for a custom formula for your particular health goals. Wise Woman Herbals is happy to provide ready-made formulas to help support your health needs in both glycerine compounds and liquid extract compounds.

The success of whole herbs or herbal extracts comes down to how active their phytochemicals are when ingested. At Wise Woman Herbals, we always consider freshness, potency, absorption and formulation when making herbal choices. There is a place for both whole herbs and herbal extracts in a healthy wellness plan.

While there are many other ways of preparing whole herbs and herbal extracts, these are the most common options. Whichever you choose to use, please consult with a trusted healthcare provider before starting any new supplements.


This blog was written by Meg Ramirez, please click here to learn more about the author.

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